Ever since he hung up his Mad Max motorcycle boots for the last time, Mel Gibson has mostly played it lovable. Even in gritty roles in "Ransom" and "Braveheart," he was fighting for the best of causes, and his off-kilter but deadly "Lethal Weapon" character quickly degenerated into half of a comedy team.
The new "Payback" gives Gibson his best chance yet to exercise his dark side, and he carries it off terrifically. The thriller is based on the book "The Hunter" by Donald Westlake ("The Hot Rock," "Bank Shot") who, under the pseudonym of Richard Stark, writes an ultra-violent series of books about a professional thief named Parker.
This novel was also the source material for the brutal Lee Marvin movie "Point Blank," which was known for its dazzling (but often incoherent) visual style directed by John Boorman in his 1967 debut.
The attention-grabbing opener of "Payback" shows a bloody fellow named Porter having slugs gouged out of his back by a drunken surgeon, while a wry voiceover by Gibson complains about the lack of medical benefits in the thievery business. As the credits roll, Porter, with the aid of one pickpocketed wallet, re-establishes himself.
It seems Porter was shot and left for dead by his wife, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), and his partner in crime, Val Reznick (Gregg Henry), after a successful heist. Now Porter wants his money back - but only, the thief insists with a certain stubborn integrity, his half. (This is the basis for the film's best running joke.)
However, Val used the loot to buy his way into a crime syndicate called The Outfit, and if Porter wants his money back, he's going to have to get it from them. But The Outfit isn't Porter's only problem: The Chinese triad from which he and Val stole the money is hot on his trail, and a pair of crooked cops also wants a cut.
Porter's only ally is an ex-call girl, Rosie ("E.R." alumnus Maria Bello). But she is also a disadvantage - now he has something that gives him a vulnerable spot.
Gibson's acting is dynamite, but "Payback" approaches an ensemble piece with a lot of good performances. Bello is tough and tender, showing that she has what it takes for a big-screen career. The chemistry between her and Gibson gives the film a shot of surprising tenderness.
William Devane is oily and menacing as a mid-level crime boss, and James Coburn (who is enjoying a fine comeback lately) is fun as his deceptively jovial partner. However, the one problem "Payback" has is that by the time we meet Kris Kristofferson as the ultimate boss, we are getting the feeling that none of these clowns are a match for Porter.
First-time director Brian Helgeland (who adapted "L.A. Confidential" for the screen) strikes a fine balance, and directs with a veteran's assurance. While "Payback" has a darker sense of humor than "Point Blank," it never lapses into the '90s sadistic slapstick that invites belly laughs during the act of killing.
Critics who complained that last summer's "Ronin" was a throwback will have even more of a problem with "Payback." This is the kind of gritty crime thriller Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen might have made 30 years ago. The soundtrack goes from a Henry Mancini sound, to Frank Sinatra, B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix, but nothing newer, and most of the cars are at least 20 years old.
Helgeland even films everything through a blue-gray filter, giving the cinematography a near black-and-white look and a classic, timeless feel.
Like "The Godfather" or "Thief" - although without those classics' moral weight - "Payback" sets up a self-contained little universe where only bad guys are involved in the action. We are allowed to identify with and cheer on Porter's violent quest, since the only people who get hurt are genuinely sadistic creeps who are worse than he.